Failed coup in Turkey could allow Erdogan to tighten his grip on the troubled country

Turks wave flags at the Ataturk airport in Istanbul as they celebrate defeating a coup attempt.
Turks wave flags at the Ataturk airport in Istanbul as they celebrate defeating a coup attempt.
(Gurcan Ozturk / AFP/Getty Images)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has apparently put down a clumsy military coup, but the fallout, as he punishes those who challenged his government, will plunge Turkey’s domestic politics and its relations with the U.S. into new turmoil.

A vital strategic ally to Washington, NATO member Turkey was generally calm Saturday, after a long night in which rival factions in tanks and F-16 fighter jets battled for control of the country before Erdogan ended the uprising.

Those responsible for the coup “will pay a heavy price for this treason,” Erdogan said.

His enemies said they were challenging Erdogan because of his efforts to consolidate and enhance his own power, weaken opponents and inject a more Islamic flavor into secular Turkish institutions. With the failure of the coup, Erdogan emerges stronger than ever and is likely to become an even greater authoritarian, to the detriment of Turkish democracy, analysts say.


More than 250 people were killed in the attempted coup, including 104 soldiers identified as coup backers. Thousands of alleged coup participants — among them five generals and 29 colonels, along with numerous judges — have been arrested.

The Erdogan government blamed the rebellion on a Turkish Muslim theologian living in exile in Pennsylvania, and demanded that the U.S. extradite him. Failure to do so would be viewed as an act of hostility, the government said.

Turkey, at least temporarily, also shut down the critical Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey, which the United States uses to fly missions into Syria and to attack the militant group Islamic State. This will force U.S. pilots to fly from more distant air bases and could seriously hamper the campaign against Islamic State militants and the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Turkish officials maintain that a contingent of Turkish soldiers at Incirlik supported the coup attempt, which began about 7:30 p.m. Friday, when a dissident military faction sent tanks to close Istanbul’s two bridges over the Bosporus strait linking Europe with Asia.

Declaring that they were in complete charge of the country, the faction declared a national curfew, seized the General Staff headquarters, took over state television and sent tanks to surround the federal parliament. Later the faction carried out bombing raids against the parliament as well as other key security installations before tens of thousands of Erdogan supporters took to the streets and, along with the police and loyal factions of the military, helped put down the rebellion.

Analysts said the shoddy conduct of the attempted overthrow ultimately plays into Erdogan’s hands and will allow the president to tighten his grip on politics and society. Turkey has censored, harassed or arrested journalists, politicians from the Kurdish minority and numerous voices of criticism of Erdogan.


“It is clear that he is going to use this opportunity to finish up what he wanted to do from the beginning,” said Henri Barkey, a Turkish scholar who heads the Middle East program at the nonpartisan Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. He spoke by telephone from Istanbul.

“He will consolidate his power. He feels emboldened,” Barkey added, but cautioned that there were too many uncertainties still to predict exactly how events will play out. “Things are going to get bumpy.”

The coup was “a head-on targeting of Erdogan,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish opposition lawmaker and current fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Even though resolved, it will take a damaging toll on Turkey’s economy and domestic dynamics, Erdemir said.

“This is going to hit Turkish markets badly and hit Turkish democracy badly,” Erdemir said. “It will destabilize the country and erode trust in institutions.”

Many in Turkey suspect Erdogan was already planning to purge the judiciary and other branches of government of suspected followers of Fethullah Gulen, the exiled theologian.


At an extraordinary meeting, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, Turkey’s highest judicial administrative body, laid off and ordered the arrest of 2,745 judges, 11 prosecutors and 10 Court of Appeals members, and issued warrants for the arrest of 140 others, the semiofficial Daily Sabah reported.

The most prominent judges to be detained were Alparslan Altan and Erdal Tercan, both members of the Turkish constitutional court, now being questioned over suspected involvement in the coup attempt, a presidential spokesman said.

Both the military and part of Turkey’s judiciary had been the stiffest opponents to Erdogan’s gradual expansion of his own power and imposition of more Islamic tradition in public life and institutions — the coup plotters’ stated motive for their actions.

“Friday night was a stain in the history of Turkish democracy,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Saturday morning.

As he congratulated Turkish citizens for resisting the coup attempt, he noted that the military chain of command did not support the rebels. Coup organizers detained Chief of Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar in his headquarters until a commando team rescued him early Saturday.

Erdogan also appeared to be steeling for a showdown with Washington; the two countries are strategically close but politically problematic allies. He demanded the extradition of Gulen, whose group the Turkish government has accused of orchestrating the coup.


The septuagenarian Gulen, who has kept a low profile in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains for more than 15 years, leads a worldwide movement that blends a mystical form of Islam with calls for democracy, education, science and interfaith dialogue.

Gulen denied any responsibility for instigating the uprising and issued a statement saying his group does not support any military attempt to take over the government.

But Erdogan and his associates say they have long suspected Gulen, a former ally, of attempting to infiltrate the military, press and other institutions with his own followers.

Speaking to cheering, flag-waving supporters later Saturday, Erdogan addressed President Obama directly and said: “I told you to deport or give this person back to Turkey.

“I repeat my call on the U.S. and the president to give this person back to Turkey,” Erdogan said.

Yildirim described Gulen as the head of a “terrorist organization.”

“Whichever country supports him isn’t a friend of Turkey. It is practically at war with Turkey,” Yildirim said.


U.S. judicial officials said they had not received an extradition request. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said his government would consider any such request as long as it met U.S. standards of evidence.

It does not appear to have been a very brilliantly planned or executed event.

— U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

Even before the coup was resolved, the Obama administration voiced strong support for the “democratically elected” government of Turkey, if not explicitly for Erdogan.

“The United States, without any hesitation, squarely and unequivocally, stands for democratic leadership, for the respect for a democratically elected leader, and for a constitutional process in that regard,” Kerry said Saturday. “We stand by the government of Turkey.”

Kerry urged “restraint” and a proper “legal process” for the coup plotters.

“As of this moment, Turkey’s cooperation with us in our counter-terrorism efforts, in our NATO obligations and in our regional efforts with respect to Syria and [Islamic State] have not been affected negatively,” Kerry said.

Asked how the United States could be taken so off-guard by the coup, Kerry said: “Well ... if you’re planning a coup, you don’t exactly advertise it to your partners in NATO. So it surprised everybody, including the people of Turkey. I must say, it does not appear to have been a very brilliantly planned or executed event.”


The White House said Obama was briefed on events in Turkey during a special meeting Saturday with his national security and foreign policy teams.

Because of the shutdown at Incirlik, U.S. military commanders are adjusting flight operations to minimize effects on ground battles that would normally be supported by airstrikes from U.S. warplanes based in Turkey, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.

“U.S. officials are working with the Turks to resume air operations there as soon as possible,” he said.

The U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations against Islamic State, will instead rely on U.S. aircraft based in more distant locations, such as Jordan and Qatar.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration also banned U.S. carriers from flying to or from Istanbul and Ankara airports, and also prohibited any carrier from flying into the U.S. from Turkey.

Gutman reported from Istanbul and Wilkinson reported from Washington. Times staff writers W.J. Hennigan and Del Quentin Wilber in Washington contributed to this report.



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4:55 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with analysis and background.

1:25 p.m.: The article was updated with the arrests of various judges and military officers and new information from the Pentagon.


9:25 a.m.: The article was updated with additional information from the State Department and the Pentagon.

9:05 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.

3:30 a.m.: This article was updated with new details throughout.

This article was originally published at 2:55 a.m.